Book review: Lessons from the 1st Stoa

“Stoicism and the art of happiness” by Donald Robertson

Modern Stoicism is largely based on the wonderful thinking of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca through their “main 3 books” of Meditations, Discourses, and Letters, respectively. This is because these books are only a handful of surviving bodies of Stoic writings left that are almost fully intact (with only 4 books out of 8 of Discourses survived).

But these 3 wise philosophers were all part of the so-called 3rd Stoa, the 3rd generation of “Late Stoa” in Rome. So what about the wisdom of the founding fathers of Stoicism, the 1st generation of “Early Stoa” in Ancient Greece? Well, it is said that there are only 1% of surviving Stoic materials left in the world, with the “main 3” dominate the canon, while everything ever written by the founder Zeno have all but disappeared. And so I thought.

This book is different than the rest of 7 modern Stoic books that I’ve read so far, because besides discussing the teachings of the usual 3rd Stoa it also provides the teachings from the 1st Stoa such as Zeno, Cleanthes, and what growingly becomes my favourite Chrysippus, as well as many other Stoic philosophers. And the stories are simply astonishing.

Firstly, I never knew that Pythagoras (the math triangle guy) had such an interesting life and philosophy (and many cult-like followers too in Ancient times) which the Stoics like to refer to. Then we have the story of Paconius Agrippinus, a highly regarded Stoic philosopher who responded with a complete composure when being informed of his impending death execution, by finishing his lunch with his friends.

But my favourite got to be the story when Macedonian king Antigonus II, a powerful political and military leader, came to visit Zeno to listen to his teachings, and Zeno was completely unconcerned when he met the powerful king. Because Antigonus had power over nothing that Zeno saw as important in life and he possessed nothing that Zeno desire about.

Furthermore, the book also has a neat “try it now” section in every chapter, which consist of the suggested Stoic lesson for us to practice for the topic. My absolute favourite is got to be contemplating life as one big festival, with us getting a ticket to attend Glastonbury or the modern Olympic games or any art event. Like the sequence of life, we attend festivals to absorb the experience, to learn a thing or two from it, to enjoy it fully but to never get too attached to anything in it because we’re only a visitor and it is only a temporary gig. When things get rough, it’s okay because it’s the nature of chaotic festival. And when it’s time to wrap up the event, you don’t get upset by it but instead you just leave the event bringing fond memories along with you.

As a reader (and dare I say, a practitioner) of Stoicism it delights me that up to this point I found the numerous modern books on Stoicism as complementary for each other rather than competing. While one focuses on the history, others adapt the lessons into modern-day contexts. While some focused more into the academic discussions, others are more targeted towards bite size day-to-day implementation. And this book is no different, it serves as another piece of Stoic puzzle by dwelling deep into the origins and the formation of the philosophies that becomes the Stoic principles.

Thus, it is a form of injustice if we compare the modern books on Stoicism against each other, as each have different purpose that serve the greater good. Instead, in the quest of reading all available books written on Stoicism I am absolutely estatic, wait, hang on, nay, I’m preferably indifferent that there is another excellent book that provides yet another new angles on the Stoic philosophy. And this one, happens to be written by the founder of the influential Stoicon.